Students explain a device they build in CE-490 to Dr. Mehrdad Zadeh.

Learning from failure an important component of Computer Engineering capstone course

In the course, two groups comprised of senior students majoring in Computer Science, Computer Engineering and Electrical Engineering were tasked with designing and building prototypes of reality-based surgical training systems.

In an ever-changing and competitive job market, it is increasingly vital for engineers to not only have sound technical and design skills, but also possess a broader array of abilities to develop products more economically, learn quickly from mistakes and understand market needs.

These concepts were recently introduced into Kettering University’s CE-490: Senior CE Design Project course by Dr. Mehrdad Zadeh, assistant professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

In the course, two groups comprised of senior students majoring in Computer Science, Computer Engineering and Electrical Engineering were tasked with designing and building prototypes of reality-based surgical training systems. The capstone course has previously been focused on the technical aspects of the project, but thanks to an internal grant from the Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network (KEEN) and Kettering University’s Innovation to Entrepreneurship Across the Curriculum (i2e AU) initiative, Zadeh was able to add components to the course from an i2e KEEN framework.

New components of the course included market analysis of similar products, opportunities to gain competitive advantages over those existing products, developing effective marketing and communications skills to describe the need the product would fill and learning from failure.

“Usually this capstone course is just focused on technical skills,” Zadeh said. “This time though, the students practiced multiple skills that complement the design aspects. The advantage it gives the students is that they acquire new skills by learning from failure, which is important in development the entrepreneurial mindset that is essential for today’s engineering students.”

Each group developed a different product aimed at the same goal -- building a device that hospitals, universities and other facilities could use as a training tool for surgeons or medical students on laparoscopic or minimally invasive surgeries. One group designed a training device that used motion capture technology while the other developed a product that relied on force measurements providing feedback to the user. Both groups were tasked with explaining the need for the products, along with designing and building them.

“They investigated the market and identified opportunities for training systems that could provide objective assessments to users,” Zadeh said. “When they looked at competitors and costs, they found that similar products cost thousands of dollars each. So the idea was to create a low-cost surgical simulator that is more affordable and more accessible for people to use.”

One group included Will Johnson, Logan McGuire, Anthony Padalino, Daniel Mueller, Ove Peronard and Dillon Hunt. As part of the group’s research, they had help from an actual surgeon -- Dr. Rahul Sharma from Hurley Medical Center.

CE-490 students demonstrate their devices.

“Dr. Sharma came in and tested the product and gave us great feedback,” Johnson said. “He does minimally invasive surgeries all the time, so him testing the product and telling us what worked and what didn’t was really valuable. He was also able to confirm the need for this type of lower-cost product.”

The second group of students included Michael Reid, John Thornton, Alison Chan, Daniel Millisor and  Andrew Marrison. Their market research also indicated a strong need for similar products.

“Other trainers haven’t had objective measurement capture capabilities and are very high cost,” Chan said.

Implementing the i2e module and requirements into the course proved challenging but ultimately beneficial for both groups as they both encountered and learned from mistakes in the process. Both teams identified staying organized, communicating with their group effectively, time management and budget constraints as obstacles they had to overcome to complete the projects.

“We learned that when everything falls apart, just keep moving forward,” Millisor said. “It forced us to start planning better as the project went on.”

Both groups also benefitted from having students with different skillsets as part of their teams.

“We benefitted because we were able to draw on different backgrounds on who could specialize on what,” Reid said. “That made it fun -- people got to do what they were interested in and draw on prior knowledge from classes others didn’t necessarily have experience in.”

Zadeh noted that the added components ultimately made the course both more challenging and more rewarding for students by providing them opportunities to use their creativity and develop new skills.

“The students liked this type of framework for this class and enjoyed the open-ended type of project,” he said. “The addition of the i2e module helps them understand better the relationship between professional skills and technical skills.”